“Lone Star” – Borderlands Noir at its Most Mature

I wrote this introduction for The Mesilla Valley Film Society’s screening of Lone Star in February, 2023. We screened the Coens’ Blood Simple in January, but I just kind of winged that one that night like a wild man.

When I select a movie for this series, I sit down and watch it again with a notepad, making note of things I want to highlight in these introductions. It’d been at least a decade since I’d watched Lone Star but as a Blockbuster manager in the late 90s, I’d seen it at least a half-dozen times when it was new to the shelves, so I felt pretty good about being able to take notes while watching the movie.

Well, this time, there’s three short bullet points  and then the rest of the page is blank. That’s a testament to how well this picture grabs your attention and doesn’t let it go, even if you’ve seen it before.

Elizabeth Pena and Chris Cooper in LONE STAR.
Elizabeth Peña as Pilar and Chris Cooper as Sam.

Sayles attended the same cinematic bootcamp as luminaries like Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola and James Cameron: he worked for Roger Corman. He wrote the Joe Dante-directed Piranha and Lewis Teague’s The Lady In Red as a way to fund his first feature, The Return of The Secaucus Seven, and would continue this pattern over the next few years. He’d script Alligator, Battle Beyond The Stars, The Howling and others to get to make his breakthrough The Brother From Another Planet and from there, his path was set. That leads us to where we are tonight, Sayle’s tenth feature, Lone Star.

This is the textbook definition of a rich film. It touches on a lot of subjects, many of which will be naggingly familiar in 2024, while its central mystery — What happened to Kris Kristofferson’s Sheriff Charlie Wade, and how was Matthew McConaughey’s Buddy Deeds involved?  — unspools at a deliberate but never boring pace.  With help from some clever in-camera editing and a script that knows exactly when to reveal what, the audience learns about all the connections and buried secrets in Rio County’s past alongside Buddy’s son Sam, now sheriff himself (played by the always-terrific Chris Cooper).  It’s a mature film, to say the least, one that the audience can enjoy more as they also experience things like long-lost love, broken families, and marriages that don’t work out for whatever reason.

Matthew McConaughey as Buddy Deeds; Kris Kristofferson as Charlie Wade

Everyone loves trivia, so here’s some:

  • This movie was shot in Del Rio, Eagle Pass, and Laredo, Texas, and while the script called for it, there wasn’t a drive-in theater available to use in the area. So, they built one and screened the dailies on the big screen there on the last night of filming.
  • You may catch a brief glimpse of a movie playing there in one of the flashback scenes. That would be Black Mama, White Mama, a production of Roger Corman’s American International Pictures.
  • The movie was extremely well received by critics and audiences, costing $3,000,000 while making $13,000,000. That makes it a textbook moneyball picture to me. Not a blockbuster, but certainly profitable enough to make everyone happy.
  • Joe Morton, who plays Delmore Payne, is actually 18 months older than Ron Canada, who portrays his father Otis. It works, somehow, and the scenes with the two of them perfectly capture the tension between a father who abandoned his son and the younger man who succeeded despite it.
  • From the opening shot, it’s obvious that real thought was put into things like color grading, lighting, framing, etc. That’s the work of cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, who got praise for bringing a David Lean aesthetic to a Zane Grey western.

Martin Scorcese’s fond of talking about how some movies are in dialogue with another, whether intentionally or not. This is definitely of a piece with Touch of Evil, with many of the same touchstones: law enforcement, buried secrets, the border, while remaining resolutely about the personal and that’s why I wanted to feature it in this series. Even if their two styles couldn’t be further apart, this piece of borderlands noir has an ending that will haunt you, much like Welles’ epic.

Lone Star is currently available from the Criterion Collection in a stunning 4KUHD presentation.





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